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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thecla: A Woman between Rain and Fire

The Roman governor of Iconium must have wondered at the forces which seemed to be sweeping through his city. Only recently he had detained a man called Paul whose teaching activities had become so popular that they had caused civic unrest. Now before him stood this striking and charismatic woman, reported by her own mother and indignant fiancé for breaking her vows of betrothal in favour of becoming a follower of that same Paul. The woman’s silent and dignified refusal to recant must have been troubling to the governor. But the mother’s insistence of the deep shame which her daughter had brought upon the family honour seems to have swayed the case. The woman called Thecla was condemned to be burned.

Thecla, as with so many names which have come down to us, occupies an uncertain place between fictional stories, folklore, legend and actual history.
In the city’s amphitheatre Thecla was stripped and tied to the stake. Flaming torches were set to the pyre, and the flames rose. How to account, then, for the sudden darkening of the skies on such a clear day? How to account for the heavens opening and pouring such a deluge of rain upon the scene that the burning pyre beneath Thecla was quenched? Shaken, and perhaps even afraid at witnessing this seemingly supernatural turn of events, the governor ordered that Thecla be freed.

Now his travelling companion, Thecla journeyed with Paul to the city of Antioch. On the streets of the city Thecla was accosted by a nobleman named Alexander who, besotted with her [1]beauty, attempted to rape her. In her struggles to resist, Thecla tore the nobleman’s cloak. This apparently inexcusable insult to a member of the nobility brought Thecla before the governor.

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre in Antioch as they are today. The footprints of Thecla remain in the sand, in story if not actually in history.
Another city, another governor – and another amphitheatre. This time it was not fire which threatened to end the newly-condemned Thecla’s life, but the wild beasts of the arena. Standing once more alone and naked in the sand, again Thecla found herself at the mercy of forces seemingly greater than herself. But other forces greater even than these would again conspire to save her. The howls of protest from the women in the crowd at the injustice of Thecla’s fate turned first to cries of disbelief, and then to shouts of astonished joy as the lionesses among the animals moved to circle protectively around Thecla, fighting off the big maned males when they came too close.

And then it seemed to the astonished crowd that Thecla became enveloped in a garment of bright and shining fire: yet more seemingly supernatural occurrences which ensured her pardon and release. When the wondering governor presented her with garments to cover herself, Thecla is said to have replied: “He that clad me when I was naked among the beasts, the same in the day of judgement will clothe me with salvation.”


The above incidents are the substance of the Thecla legend. They can be found in the apocryphal Acts of Paul, a manuscript written some 130-140 years after the events which they describe by the presbyter of an [2]Asian orthodox church. [3]Tertullian, the author and shaper of Christian doctrine, informs us that this presbyter was charged with imposture and stripped of his office. This would seem to make the writer of the Acts a distinctly dubious source, but the vivid recounting of such apparent wonders emanating from on high evidently has been enough evidence for orthodoxy to grant Thecla sainthood, the criteria for which include such miracles of faith as these.

Following her redemption in Antioch's Roman amphitheatre, Thecla journeyed to Myra in the southern province of Lycia to continue her ministry. Seleucia in what was then the eastern province of Syria is the site of her supposed tomb. Greek copies of the Acts relate that she lived into her 90's, spending her last years in reclusive meditation.
But if the Thecla of legend is not the real Thecla, might we discover the woman behind the stories? However much legends embroider upon more prosaic realities, they draw us towards them because of the human truths which they contain. What we recognize and respond to in Thecla’s legend are the fundamental truths of injustice: injustice by those in positions of authority, and the shockingly obvious injustice perpetrated against women by men. The story even emphasizes this injustice by describing the reaction of the women in the amphitheatre crowd. Thecla is not just a woman thrown upon the mercy of beasts: she is a woman who must navigate her way in a man’s world, where men have not only the authority but the greater physical strength. Thecla is, in short, as much a woman of our time as she is of her own distant world.

The remains of the library at Ephesus. As with these ruins, so with the scrolls and manuscripts which they once contained: what has survived is at one and the same time a reminder of what has been lost to us forever. We sometimes know of these lost literary masterpieces of antiquity only through their being mentioned and praised by other writers in the works which have survived.
Thecla’s world was not as we now tend to envisage it. Paul and Thecla lived a scant few years after the events of the crucifixion. It was not an emerging [4]‘Christian’ world in the sense in which we would now use the term. There was no ‘Bible’. Many different texts were in circulation among different groups, and no one text had more authority than another. Iconium, Antioch, and even northern Galilee were subject to Hellenist and therefore pre-Christian Gnostic influence. A 5th-6th-century [5]mural in Ephesus in present-day Turkey portrays Thecla and Paul side by side, both of them with upraised right hands to indicate both their teaching status, leadership status and equal status with each other: a gender equality which would have been the norm in Gnostic or pro-Gnostic communities.

This regional inscription bears the name of the city of Iconium. The city was real enough, but those who might or might not have walked her streets could have been phantasms. Perhaps this also includes Thecla: a ghost in an actual place, like a fictional Hamlet wandering the real-enough corridors of Denmark's Elsinor Castle.
So how is it possible that Thecla has become a saint of the orthodox Church? It would seem that she joined that dubious list of those who, however remote their principles from those of orthodoxy, have been reinvented at a later date by those orthodox individuals who sought to fictionalize what they could not change in life, and then pass off that fiction as historical reality: a list which includes ‘Saint’ Mary Magdalene, ‘Saint’ Anthony – and ‘Saint’ Paul himself.

But in the end perhaps it does not matter greatly who ‘claims’ Thecla for their own. What we are left with is the essence of a strong, beautiful and principled woman who burned with the bright fire of her faith, but who also touches us with the gentle rain of her grace, and so lifts us up with her.

[1] Independently of the description of Thecla in The Acts of Paul, Paul himself mentions that he was concerned that Thecla’s striking beauty might distract her audience from her ministry. Paul himself was described as being bow-legged, balding and very short. 

[2] ‘Asia’ in this context was a province in what is now Turkey (please see my map above).

[3] Tertullian of Carthage (left) is conventionally credited with the Christian concept of the Trinity, although the concept can be traced back to the pre-Christian Ancient Greek mystery schools.

[4] The author of The Acts of Paul has Thecla make ‘the sign of the cross’ as she resigns herself to be burned. But (apart from the obvious physical impossibility of doing so when her hands were tied to the stake!) no such sign would have been current at this early date. The sign seems to have originated well over a century after Thecla lived, in the unknown author’s own time - a clear indication of the gap which exists between legend and history, and of the clues offered to us for discerning between the two.

[5] Please see my post "Behold This Woman". The Catholic Encyclopedia is careful to stress that Thecla needed Paul's permission to begin her ministry, and describes her as 'the pupil of Paul' - a description which the existing mural (right) in Ephesus depicting her as Paul's apparent equal contradicts. As Catholicism only emerged in a recognizable form some two centuries after Thecla's time, the moral and ethical question has to be: can the Catholic church claim someone to be a 'saint' of that church if that person lived before Catholicism as such even existed?

The Acts of Paul. From: The Apocryphal New Testament, Translated and with notes by M.R. James. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.

Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Trinity Press International, 1975.

Valerie Bockman: The Role of Women in the First Century Church: A Model for Today. PDF document based on a talk given at the Orthodox Conference hosted by St. Mark's Orthodox Cathedral Church in July 1991. Presbyteria Bockman states that: “In Christian Tradition veils denote sacredness, being set apart. When a woman veils her head, it is not a demeaning act. It denotes, rather that her femininity is sacred, special, to be revered, and simultaneously that she... is a handmaid of the Lord.” This statement has guided my own imagined portrait of Thecla seen at the head of this post.

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